HAD’s Response to the EH and NT Consultation on Avebury Reburial 2009

Consultation on the Request for Reburial of Prehistoric Human Remains in the Alexander Keiller Museum, Avebury, Wiltshire

January 2009

A.    HAD : Background

This response is submitted by Emma Restall Orr, on behalf of Honouring The Ancient Dead (HAD), in the capacity of founder and council member of that organization.  It follows a consultation within HAD, the response here being an expression of all the views received.

HAD’s remit is to act as an advocacy group for human remains of British provenance, particularly those of Pagan origin in terms of era or beliefs.  In this way, HAD works on behalf of the modern Pagan religious, spiritual and philosophical community, engaging with museums, archaeologists and other heritage organisations to ensure there is a useful understanding of beliefs, practices, aims and sensitivities, on all sides.

HAD’s representation, with regard to being a key voice in modern British Paganism, is based upon its council of theologians, writers, priests and thinkers, together with its council of advisors.  It can therefore be seen as being representative of Pagan theology and philosophy, but does not speak on behalf of any specific individual bodies within the Pagan community.  As such, its work is most usually about hearing individuals’ concerns about specific human remains (such concerns being of both Pagans and those involved directly with their care) and, where organisations are willing to engage with us, ensuring there is clear communication and positive action based upon mutual respect.

B.    RESPONSE : Introduction

This response is made with regard to the Request for reburial of the child known as Charlie, currently on display at the Alexander Keiller Museum, Avebury, together with the partial skeletal remains of seven other individuals taken from the Kennet Avenue, Avebury, at present archived at the museum.  The Request was made by the Reburial Committee of the Council of British Druid Orders (referred to here as CoBDO) in June 2006.

This response is submitted as a document, and not through the form provided by English Heritage (EH) and the National Trust (NT) on their websites.  HAD chose not to use the form for two reasons.  Firstly, the form did not allow for sufficient emphasis on what we feel to be the serious shortcomings of this consultation: the use of the current DCMS Guidance as its framework and touchstone.  Secondly, consultation within HAD did not elicit answers that were based upon it and thus to tick boxes would not have been adequately representative of those responses.

The structure of this response therefore covers the following areas:

  • In support of CoBDO’s Request
  • Problems with CoBDO’s Request
  • Problems with this Consultation
  • Conclusions and Recommendations

C.    IN SUPPORT of CoBDO’s Request

Connection and Continuity

For many modern British Pagans, the foundation of their beliefs is the nurture and experience of profound relationship with the essence of nature.  This relationship, developed through sacred practice – from individual study and meditation to shared ritual and celebration – is often framed within pantheistic or animistic worldviews, or understood to be in recognition and service to one or more deities.  It is the deep experience of connectedness within nature that offers the Pagan the sense of individual ecstasy, intellectual certainty, tribal belonging, moral quietude and inner peace that is at the heart of most belief systems.

Nature, to the Pagan, is not just the external nonhuman world, but also one’s own nature, that of humanity as a whole, together with one’s ancestry.  Indeed, reverence for one’s human forebears is fundamental to most Pagan traditions, British and otherwise. Among other views, the dead may be perceived as still extant, conscious persons albeit in another form, or as a local or collective sacred spring into which one must make offerings and out of which one may take strength, wisdom and understanding.  Whatever specific beliefs the individual Pagan may hold, what accompanies this perspective is a religious conviction that the dead must be shown adequate respect if the living are to thrive, or even function tenably.

Within a tradition that reveres nature as wholly sacred, and seeks out the physical and metaphysical connections between the land and its people, it is usual for British Pagans to have a sense of being intimately connected to their predecessors.  This includes not just their blood ancestors, but all those who have lived within a landscape before them, walking in the same woodlands, sitting by the same rivers, tilling the same valleys, telling the same stories of love and loss, fear and triumph, breathing the same air.  Acknowledging nature’s perpetual change within the parameters of human perception, this relational sense of continuity is foundational to many Pagans’ religious and spiritual beliefs and practice.  Indeed, the Pagan is likely to perceive him or herself acutely as just one note within the continuing song of humanity that has been sung over thousands of millennia, each of us receiving and leaving the next breath as an ancestral gift, a legacy.

It is not surprising, then, that some Pagans experience an emotional response to seeing human remains in a museum context.  It makes no difference whatsoever whether the individual before them died thirty or three thousand years ago.  It makes no difference whether the individual was a believer in Christian doctrine or lived according to local nature-based religious beliefs.  Their own immediate religious perspective evokes a visceral horror: this person to whom they feel a spiritual connection has been removed from their earthly resting place (the arms of the gods and/or their community) and is now preserved (kept apart from the natural processes of decay and release), to be placed on display as an inanimate object.  Such horror cannot be dismissed.  For another to shrug such an experience off as an irrational reaction is to deny the clear rationale that underlies it: the intrinsically validating standpoint of profoundly relating to those who have lived before us.

It is from this standpoint that, it seems, CoBDO is making its Request.  However, using the DCMS Guidance and in particular the statement at 3.3.2 (‘If individuals can demonstrate a direct and close genealogical link to the human remains, their wishes would generally be given very strong weight’), EH and the NT are basing their response on invalid criteria, and expressing a comprehensive lack of understanding.

It is generally accepted, not least by those involved in its original composition, that the DCMS Guidance was written specifically to address claims made by overseas indigenous communities looking to repatriate the remains of ancestors usually no more than a few hundred years old.  Yet the document’s supporting body, the Human Remains Advisory Service (HRAS), received just a single request for advice during its short time of service, that request dealing with an East Anglian parish council’s desire to rebury Saxon remains that had been taken into the custody of a local archaeological unit; with a complete absence of relevant recommendations for claims of British origin in the Guidance, the HRAS not only failed to offer any advice but is now in abeyance and effectively disbanded.  At the time of writing, no organisation has yet been established to replace it.

Required to address the constraint given by the DCMS Guidance of needing a ‘direct and close genealogical link’, CoBDO has attempted to justify its position within the necessary parameters.  The Request speaks of research on mitochondrial DNA at Oxford University which points to a genetic connection between ancient and modern Europeans, stating that such research proves that ‘[w]e all have a close and unbroken cultural and spiritual relationship with the human remains of our ancestors’.  In response, in the consultation’s online proforma, EH and the NT imply that CoBDO’s claim is invalidated because such a link ‘is presumably shared with most of the population of Western Europe’.  However, CoBDO is claiming no special relationship with the human remains in question.  While celebrating the university’s research that proves a common genetic link, its Request fully acknowledges that the individuals submitting it may have no closer genetic links than any other Western European.  It is not a scientifically-provable genetic link that motivates their action, but something considerably deeper: a visceral experience of spiritual connection, based upon both a significant religious perspective and the common sense view that most of us are indeed probably blood-related.

In 3.3 of the Draft Report, CoBDO make ‘no claim for continuity of belief, customs and language between them and the human remains from West Kennet Avenue and Windmill Hill’.  However, HAD would still pose this as an issue worth exploring in this consultation.

The DCMS Guidance states that it ‘would be unusual to accept a claim for return from a

group who did not either occupy the land from which the remains came, practice the same religious beliefs, share the same culture or language, or could not demonstrate why this was no longer the case’.  Yet it must be sensibly acknowledged that all but a few remote and isolated human communities alter considerably over the course of time.  Where archaeology is the only resource that might describe a culture in existence over two thousand years ago, and accepting that interpretation of archaeological finds will always be influenced by current worldviews, it is impossible to know just what continuity there may be.

To the Pagan whose perspective has been described above, once again it is essential to understand that continuity is beyond doubt.  Where an individual’s life is primarily influenced, guided, formed, by the natural world within which they live – the rivers, sea tides, rains, the hills and valleys, the moorlands and woodlands, the skyscapes of clouds and stars, and even the perpetual cycles of birth, love, learning, laughing, crying and dying in our human societies – and where that is consciously perceived and understood to be part of the sanctity of life, continuity is evident.  It may be a broader continuity than that which can be measured by the shape of pots or the size of settlements (evidence gleaned from archaeological fragments and assumptions), but it is a continuity nonetheless: a spiritual culture of listening to the songs of the dead in the wind, of retelling their stories sat by the fire beneath the stars, of giving thanks to the land at each seed sowing and each harvest, of gathering at specific times of year within the cycle of seasons, of making offerings to the gods of the fields, the rivers and the homestead.  Such ways of life may seem distant to members of secular communities within Britain today, but they are wholly descriptive of the majority of Pagan lives lived here and now.

Adding this to the issue of continuity as a whole, HAD would assert that CoBDO’s Request fundamentally challenges the validity of using such parameters when working with human remains that are more than a few centuries old.

Furthermore, the Request has an entirely valid foundation as an expression of special interest, and as such it challenges the notion of who maintains custody of, and makes decisions about, human remains, and in particular those of ancient British provenance.

Values and Prejudice

Throughout the period of our history during which museums, archaeologists and heritage organisations, such as EH and the NT, have taken custody of human remains, the importance of the remains’ scientific value has been seen as paramount.  In its Request, with ethical validity CoBDO is asking that the religious and spiritual value of all human remains be taken into account.

In this consultation, the heritage organisations involved do attempt to present a balanced consideration of scientific, historical, educational, spiritual and cultural values, yet this is not the experience of most Pagans who deal with such bodies.  It is with a catalogue of negative responses behind them that CoBDO is no doubt now making its Request; for while some individual museum curators and archaeologists genuinely acknowledge Pagan expressions of interest in the human remains in their care, like HAD CoBDO will have had genuine approaches both ignored or dismissed on countless occasions.

 

Access to human remains is all too often reserved for validated university research, and this seems to be the underlying principle of the DCMS Guidance. The DCMS Guidance stresses human remains as the source of direct evidence about the past but, while acknowledging in principle their spiritual importance to some communities, it recommends that as far as possible human remains should be accessible for future research, even after reburial.  Other than for overseas source communities, it offers no practical suggestions or support as to how its guidelines could be used to further the spiritual interests of communities in human remains.  In that sense, the DCMS Guidance in practice privileges the scientific use of human remains above all other considerations – which does seem to contradict its own stated principles of recognising their “personal, cultural, symbolic, spiritual or religious significance to individuals and, or, groups” (p 7).

HAD would, then, also support the nature of CoBDO’s Request on this basis; that it challenges the way in which heritage bodies and the government, not least EH, the NT and the DCMS, are willing to acknowledge the validity, depth and sensitivity of approaches that express a special interest based on religious and spiritual values – and particularly where the beliefs of that religious community are not adequately understood.

To require that any organization or individual justify their religious beliefs, or prove the underlying rationale and sources of their religion, is to express a blatant religious prejudice.  Definitively a pluralistic, individualistic, relativistic and largely structureless collection of religious and spiritual traditions, beliefs and practices, Paganism can appear hard to grasp, but ignorance is not an acceptable excuse, particularly where community engagement and/or accountability is inherent within the job description of those talking with the Pagans.  In common with many Pagans, no doubt members of CoBDO have had their beliefs ridiculed and dismissed, overtly and indirectly, and in particular by those who hold secular and scientific beliefs for whom the Pagan worldview is beyond comprehension, including those within museums, the archaeological community and heritage organisations.

While EH and the NT are doing their best to avoid any expression of such prejudice in the course of this consultation, it is imperative that they do not do so in the decisions subsequently made.  It is for this reason, too, that HAD is supportive of CoBDO submitting its Request.

D.    PROBLEMS with CoBDO’s Request

Representation and Protest

In its role as a body representative of the spectrum of Pagan thinking, HAD cannot assert that this particular Request would be supported by all Druids or Pagans.  While the majority of responses received from HAD’s council of theologians were in favour of reburial in some form or another, some Pagans on its team of advisors expressed a conviction that remains should remain accessible for scientific research.  Furthermore, HAD’s work of talking to and listening to responses within the Pagan community as a whole leads us to be confident in stating a more general Pagan view: human remains of significant cultural, social and scientific value are usually considered too important to rebury, and should be stored with respect for their status as ancestors (not objects), while poorly documented human remains of negligible context should be candidates for reburial.  In this respect, some Pagans would support any guidance that encouraged museums, archaeological units and other heritage organisations to store or display the human remains in their care in ways that allowed Pagans access for spiritual communication and communion.

As a result, and on the basis of being a representative voice for British Paganism, HAD cannot therefore fully support CoBDO’s Request for reburial.  However, it is noted that CoBDO does not claim to be fully representative.  CoBDO is an organisation whose remit is to challenge conventional and complacent thinking from the edge of the Pagan community, rather than to declare themselves a part of the centre ground.  Where their views are respected, it is on this basis.

While focused hardline approaches might be acknowledged as valuable in some circumstances, it is clear that CoBDO has been felt to be confrontational by some museums and heritage bodies with whom they have had contact over the past few years.  This has only hardened their opponents’ attitudes, closing rather than opening doors, consequently making it harder for organisations such as HAD to engage constructively through dialogue, establishing common perspectives and mutual respect.  Furthermore, with some bodies considering CoBDO to be representative of all Pagans, it can be said that their pugilistic approach has compromised attitudes in some arenas towards the British Pagan community as a whole.  This negativity has also been felt by some Pagans approaching their local museums, and by some Pagans working with the heritage sector, and further goes to disallow HAD from supporting the Request.

While the Appendix to the Request includes a history of CoBDO, this document omits important details of internal fragmentation: at around the time when the Reburial Committee was established, disagreements split the Council of British Druid Orders into two non-cooperating factions.  The Reburial Committee is effectively part of the breakaway faction and not supported by the core extant group.  It might be noted, too, that published minutes stating how the Reburial Committee was unanimously voted list the attendance of individuals with no voting rights.  While use of the term ‘the Council of British Druid Orders’ implies a large, representative and functional body, the reality is far from this.

This being said, HAD is concerned about the way in which the DCMS Guidance and the outcome of this consultation is likely to be used.  CoBDO’s lack of comprehensive Pagan backing, the fragmented nature of the group itself, and the conflicts provoked by its approach, will weaken the validity of the Request.  What HAD does not want to see is the current DCMS Guidance and the result of this Request being used as a justification for museums, archaeologists and other heritage and government bodies believing there is no need to engage – or no value in engaging – with groups expressing deeply-felt, non-scientific interest in the human remains in their care.

If the DCMS Guidance included relevant advice for processing enquiries and requests such as this submitted by CoBDO, individual museums would have access to support that would enable them both to understand such approaches from British minority religious groups, and to deal with them in a way that is mutually beneficial and respectful.  An expensive public consultation on this scale would simply not have been necessary.

Claim or Request

Required to use the DCMS Guidance for its Request to be processed, CoBDO has been put into a position where it has had to use language that is not effective to its cause.  In other words, the system it is facing has placed it in a no-win situation.

The central problem appears to be around the potential misunderstanding about whether CoBDO is making a claim of custody for the human remains in question, or stating an expression of special interest.  In media interviews and other published sources the former appears to be true: CoBDO is understood to be demanding that their Request be heard on the basis of their special connection with the remains – as British Druids.  HAD cannot support such an exclusive claim of authority over these ancestral remains.

In the Request, such words are only used once, yet even here the exact meaning is unclear.  In 3.2 of the Draft Report, CoBDO state that ‘like all people indigenous to Europe, [they] have a “close genetic” claim for reburial’.

HAD perceives CoBDO’s Request to have validity only as an expression of special interest, based on sincere and profound religious sensibilities.  This interest, however, does not afford a right to authority.  What it does justify is a clearly sounded call for such perspectives to be heard.  In other words, religious and spiritual values such as those CoBDO hold must be part of the decision-making process when it comes to how human remains are treated.  It is unfortunate that the DCMS Guidance does not include explicit recommendations for museums to include all interested groups in consultations around human remains. It is hoped that, should the Guidance be revised, this lacuna will be addressed. Furthermore, the DCMS Guidance, and all heritage bodies, should consider carefully how they can include criteria around the spiritual importance of human remains in their decision-making processes, and how they can give them the same weight as criteria based on scientific importance.

 

E.    PROBLEMS with this Consultation

Emphatically, HAD’s response to this consultation is therefore an expression of profound concern that the DCMS Guidance used for its processing is inapplicable for human remains of British provenance and for dealing with requests made by British communities.

In their invitation to consultees, David Thackray (NT) and Sebastian Payne (EH) state that ‘the way in which [the consultation] is resolved will set precedents’.  In the January/February edition of British Archaeology, Sebastian Payne acknowledges that this consultation “is seen as an important test case that will affect national debate on a contentious issue: do archaeologists and scientists have the right to determine the fate of human material of unknown ancestry”.  HAD is concerned that the results will be taken as valid – and will indeed set a precedent – even though the criteria used were not relevant.

As has been said above, the DCMS Guidance was written in response to the need for museums to engage with overseas source communities seeking to repatriate their ancestral human remains.  Its language of claims, relationship, cultural community and connection was drafted to address these specific issues.  Yet the historical situation – both of indigenous communities and of colonial explorers/collectors – is quite different from that of British remains and those expressing special interest in them.  To apply those criteria to this case is both inappropriate and illogical.

The language of ‘claims’ in particular should be inadmissable for British remains.  CoBDO have used the term simply because it is currently the only route available to them: in a sense, they have been forced into using this route, and this language, because, according to the DCMS Guidance, no other route was available to them.  More appropriate is the language of ‘expressions of interest’, which allows many different communities to have a legitimate interest in remains in whom they have a particular interest for various reasons – whether through geographical location or spiritual connection. Indeed, HAD feels that the criteria should be changed specifically in order to encourage such expressions of interest.  In many if not most cases, were the criteria to be changed, the result would be an increase in communities wishing and able to be involved in decision-making and programming around human remains, which would benefit individual museums and the cultural sector generally.

F.    CONCLUSIONS and RECOMMENDATIONS

  1. HAD fully supports the appropriateness of CoBDO making its Request for reburial of these ancient human remains on religious and spiritual grounds, fully acknowledging CoBDO’s position as a valid Pagan perspective based upon genuine, experiential, spiritual connection and the profound duty of care which such a deep connection evokes.
  2. HAD fully supports CoBDO making this Request, because the DCMS Guidance and heritage organisations should take into account spiritual (and not only scientific) interests in their decision-making.  From that point of view, the DCMS Guidance should include practical guidelines and criteria for how this could be achieved.
  3. However, because CoBDO is not fully representative of the Druid or Pagan community, and indeed has no valid right to claim authority over these remains, HAD cannot support its call for reburial.  Further, HAD’s more broadly reaching representation of Paganism informs that there is not a unanimous call for reburial of iconic remains such as Charlie.
  4. HAD queries the language of the DCMS Guidance, proposing that the language of ‘claims’ is inappropriate and has put CoBDO in a no-win situation.  If a British organisation such as CoBDO had been given the option to use the language of ‘expressions of interest’, the relevance and value of their input would have been immediately heard, supported, understood and of value.  It is essential that an inclusive language be offered that is more appropriate for the British situation.
  5. Emphatically then, HAD asserts that use of the current DCMS Guidance is inapplicable for human remains of British provenance.

Recommendations

Through the process of this consultation, using the DCMS Guidance and its parameters, HAD does not support the reburial of these particular human remains, but instead recommends the retention of the remains pending a change in the system.  HAD recommends, then, a development by EH and the NT of a process for inclusion of Pagan and other community groups in decision-making and programming around these (and other) human remains, and practical ideas of how to include spiritual interests in decisions and programming.